A reasonable case could be made that the Southeast Division is perhaps the least exciting in the NBA for the 2022-23 season. After all, only two teams are projected for playoff consideration, with one full-blown rebuild underway, and a pair of teams largely projected for middling status. Still, the Miami Heat, Atlanta Hawks, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, and Orlando Magic each present intriguing questions, and we’ll aim to highlight the single biggest prompt for each squad in advance of the regular season opener.
Atlanta Hawks: Who is De’Andre Hunter going to be?
Even before De’Andre Hunter signed a four-year extension just before the rookie-scale extension deadline on Monday, there was pressure on the former No. 4 overall pick. Hunter is not the best player, or even in the top three or four players, on Atlanta’s roster, but the Hawks have been highly invested in his future from the moment they traded a large haul to select him in the 2019 NBA Draft. Hunter showed all kinds of signs in his second season, but injuries limited him to only 23 games, and the former Virginia star took a step back in performance in 2021-22.
Hunter doesn’t have to be a star for the Hawks and, realistically, that isn’t a probable outcome at this juncture. What he does need to be is a solid, available, two-way role player for an Atlanta team that has sky-high aspirations. The Hawks can’t replace him, which is likely part of why an extension happened, and Hunter might be the single biggest X-factor between Atlanta returning to the Play-In or being in contention for a top-four seed.
Charlotte Hornets: What is the plan to replace Miles Bridges’ production?
Miles Bridges isn’t on an NBA roster, and he shouldn’t be. It is near impossible to talk about anything related to basketball and Bridges, but the reality is that Bridges averaged 20 points and seven rebounds for Charlotte last season, was the team’s most athletic and explosive player, and landed only behind LaMelo Ball in the team’s overall pecking order.
With the Hornets’ current roster and salary cap situation coupled with the way everything happened with Bridges, it wasn’t as if Charlotte could simply go sign a replacement. A healthy Gordon Hayward would go a long way, and players like Kelly Oubre and PJ Washington can function in partial roles, but the reality is that Charlotte has an uphill battle toward the playoffs. That isn’t where a team wants to be that clearly isn’t rebuilding, either.
Miami Heat: Who is playing power forward?
Miami made a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals and nearly made the NBA Finals. Miami also has Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, and Erik Spoelstra. With those realities in place, the Heat have a very high floor, but Miami lost a key piece in P.J. Tucker with no clear replacement.
In practice, Butler is slated to play power forward at times, and he is more than capable of doing so. Otherwise, Miami has Caleb Martin slotted at the 4, even though he is clearly a wing-sized player, and guys like Haywood Highsmith and rookie Nikola Jokic may log minutes. Tucker’s absence may actually help Miami’s offense if it leads to more of Max Strus and/or Duncan Robinson, but defense is where the Heat shine, and they have more questions there than they would probably like in October.
Orlando Magic: Which guard(s) will make the team’s inner circle?
With Paolo Banchero now on board and Franz Wagner poised for a breakout, the Magic have a tremendous future-facing setup in the frontcourt. Orlando already has a starting-caliber center in Wendell Carter Jr., and the Magic might eventually get something from Jon Isaac to further stabilize matters. Banchero and Wagner are both capable of perimeter-based creation, but the Magic also have a bevy of guards with a lot to prove.
Jalen Suggs has the highest level of investment as a recent top-five pick, and he is already showing tremendous defensive potential. Suggs also struggled mightily on offense and has battled injury concerns. Orlando also has a sizable contract invested in Markelle Fultz, who is a solid player that still faces shooting issues, and Cole Anthony is a proven bucket getter that might be best-suited as a third guard type off the bench. Everything with the Magic should be viewed through a long-term lens, but it would be helpful if Orlando already had at least part of its long-term guard room set by the end of the 2022-23 season.
Washington Wizards: So, what’s the plan here?
Same story, different season for the Wizards. Bradley Beal recently became the tenth player in NBA history to have a true no-trade clause, and he signed for all the money in the world. Washington does have a legitimate No. 2 in Kristaps Porzingis, who performed well after joining them last season, but the the Wizards are still in purgatory.
On one hand, the Wizards have a bunch of quality role players. Kyle Kuzma is a very solid player. Delon Wright and Monte Morris are both professional guards who will make a team run. Will Barton will get a bucket. Daniel Gafford is a nice rim-runner and rim protector. The question is what this all means. At present, Washington appears geared entirely toward a potential Play-In run, with a series of recent first round draft picks that were not exactly focused on ceiling. The Wizards aren’t setting up salary cap room, nor are they tanking with an eye toward Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson. They are just in the middle somewhere, and that probably shouldn’t be an organizational plan for a franchise that hasn’t won 50 games since 1979.